Catholic League coaches cope with latest delay in football season

Detroit Loyola’s Derrick Harmon (55), who is expected to sign with Michigan State University this month, protects his backfield against Detroit Catholic Central in the Prep Bowl Bishop Division championship on Oct. 24. Both Loyola and Catholic Central have been affected by the latest delay in the season. (Photos by Wright Wilson | Special to Detroit Catholic)

NOVI — “We deserve to lose a game” sounds like a pretty bizarre thing for a football coach to say. But then again, when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire high school football season has been a pretty bizarre thing. 

That comment, from Detroit Loyola’s Kevin Rogers, typifies the exasperation local Catholic coaches are feeling when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services extended the three-week “pause” that delayed the remainder of the state playoffs. 

It’s the second interruption to a season that in normal years would have been concluded by now. Instead, the post-season tournament is stalled at the regional level, where eight schools per division remain in the hunt for state titles.

Players and coaches are wondering when — and if — they’ll be able to continue. Rogers isn’t necessarily convinced that will happen, in light of the latest announcement delivered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Dec. 7, a day before the recent delay would have ended if the state’s COVID-19 cases trended down significantly. 

“Yeah, she just extended it 12 more days,” Rogers said. “We’re getting blessed by God that we’re not getting hit with inches of snow right now, but how long is that going to continue? When January comes, we’re going to get blasted.”

Rogers, who is finishing his first season guiding the Bulldogs, said waiting until spring to complete the football playoffs would be “too crazy,” citing unpredictable weather, other sports in progress, and even some seniors leaving high school early to enroll in college. 

Clarkston Everest Collegiate’s Jack Lasceski is about to cross the goal line for a touchdown in the team’s 35-0 Prep Bowl victory over Riverview Gabriel Richard. A win in the next game would have enabled the Mountaineers to accomplish their deepest playoff run in school history.

“I am keeping my fingers crossed,” he said. “At this point, we are looking for closure. We at least deserve to lose a game instead of just leaving things in the air. We made it this far; everybody has the right to lose their way out of it.”

Loyola (8-1) has been on a roll during the playoff rounds completed so far, advancing with a 2-0 forfeit win over New Haven, a 31-0 shutout of Clinton Township Clintondale, and a 50-8 defeat of fellow Catholic League school Madison Heights Bishop Foley. 

The Bulldogs’ only loss came in the final game of the regular season, in the Prep Bowl’s Bishop Division championship at Catholic Central, in which the Shamrocks prevailed 45-14.

“I would definitely say we caught on after that Catholic Central game,” Rogers said. “We didn’t play our best brand of football that game. We made a ton of plays and we couldn’t finish. They’re a well-oiled machine, and they exposed some weaknesses that we had. We went back to the drawing board and cleaned those things up.”

In the next round, Loyola was to host undefeated New Lothrop. The Division 7 regional game was originally scheduled to be played Nov. 20, then rescheduled for Dec. 15, but is now “to be determined,” pending state authorities’ permission to re-start youth sports.

Besides Loyola, the teams at Novi Detroit Catholic Central, Warren De La Salle and Clarkston Everest Collegiate were also left hanging.

“It stinks, to be honest with you,” said Catholic Central’s Dan Anderson, who was ready to put the Shamrocks’ 9-0 record on the line against defending state champion Davison in the regionals.

“These last four or five games, we really started to click, and we were building momentum,” he said. “I hope to get an opportunity to see it happen. If we keep going, I hope to see us keep clicking. I’m feeling pretty positive about this group.”

In the Division 1 playoffs, Catholic Central had defeated Walled Lake Northern (41-3), Novi (37-0) and White Lake Lakeland (45-17).

Catholic Central quarterback Declan Byle has led the Shamrocks to an undefeated record and a Catholic League championship this fall, but may not get an opportunity to continue beyond the regional round of the playoffs should the MHSAA decide to suspend completion of the season.

“The kids should have the opportunity to finish this out,” Anderson said. “They handled the ups and downs of this year better than I did. I get angry. I want to finish this out. As soon as we can play, let’s do it. I don’t care how cold it is. I’ll play outside. I’ll play in a parking lot if it comes down to it; let’s just play.”

Another dimension to the executive order was the closure of all high schools across the state. While the pause remains in effect, coaches are forbidden to hold practices or allow athletes to use campus facilities. Many, like Anderson and Rogers, find little option but to hold team meetings via their computer screens. 

“Because we were shut down, we weren’t able to get into the school and lift weights,” Rogers said. “We’ve been holding Zoom meetings, staying sharp, watching film on our opponents. We were doing a few Zoom workouts, but we definitely applaud getting work on your own, whether it’s jogging around the block, or going out in the backyard and working on your footwork.”

Rogers said the latest shutdown also gives the players a period to “focus on grades” and keep up on their schoolwork, while Anderson is using the time to simply interact with the kids and ensure their spirits remain high.

“If you don’t keep them mentally engaged, you’re going to lose them,” Anderson said. “Physically, we’ll be fine, but it’s the mental thing — they’re people who need interaction with other people, high school kids especially. 

“It’s a really dynamic group of kids, but mentally, we need to stay on top of them,” he continued. “Not just football-wise, but saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ That’s the first thing I ask them every day.” 

In other regional games, De La Salle (5-4) was expected to play Warren-Mott in the Division 2 regionals, while Everest (9-0) was slated to host Petersburg-Summerfield in Division 8. Outstate schools Grand Rapids Catholic Central, Jackson Lumen Christi, Lansing Catholic Central and Traverse City St. Francis also remain alive in the playoffs. 

When the pause went into effect, the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s volleyball and girls’ swimming and diving tournaments were also yet to be completed. Both of those tournaments were in their final week of play, while it will take three weeks to crown state champions in football. The MHSAA may announce a revised plan for the three sports following its next executive committee meeting on Dec. 16.